Pressure’s on for Silvertips: Improve or pay up

Call it the Everett Silvertips’ Joe Namath moment.

Back in February, the Silvertips made their guarantee. Everett pledged to its season-ticket holders that the team would finish no worse than sixth place in the Western Conference standings this season.

Maybe the bar wasn’t placed as high as winning the Super Bowl. But unlike Namath, the Tips’ organization put its money where its mouths is. If Everett, which finished eighth in the conference the past three seasons, doesn’t finish as high as sixth this season, then season ticket holders will receive a $100 credit toward the following season’s tickets.

So what needs to happen to prevent the Tips from having to fork over hundreds of thousands of dollars? Here are three keys to keep that from happening.

1. Buying in

One thing that’s become apparent over the years is that Everett teams succeed only when the players buy into what the coach is teaching.

That happened in 2003-04 when Kevin Constantine, in his first stint as Everett’s head coach, received the full faith of his wards. All that team did was stun the league by becoming the first expansion franchise to qualify for the playoffs, then make a fairy-tale run to the Western Conference championship and the WHL finals.

It happened somewhat in 2009-10, when the team belatedly bought into Craig Hartsburg’s pressuring system. A team that was .500 through the first half rattled off 14 straight victories in compiling a perfect January, eventually tying with Tri-City for the best record in the conference.

The past three seasons havn’t seen the same level of commitment from the players. They sometimes did what the coaches wanted, but not all the time. The result was inconsistent play and frustrated coaches — as well as losing seasons.

Therefore, step one in fulfilling the guarantee is getting the players to buy what Constantine is selling.

2. Score more goals

If there’s one characteristic that’s defined Everett during it’s three-year lull, it’s a lack of offense.

During the past three seasons, the Silverips have had the most anemic offense in the WHL. Everett scored just 171 goals last season, ranking dead last in the league.

The previous season the Tips scored 183 goals to rank 20th out of 22 teams, and in 2010-11 Everett scored 171 times to rank 21st. The three-season total of 525 is far worse than any other team in the league, with the nearest being the 563 scored by I-5 rival Seattle. Therefore, it’s elementary that a big key to improving in the standings is putting more pucks in the net.

How will the Tips accomplish that? There’s several reasons for optimism on that front:

  • Everett didn’t lose much offensively. Five of the team’s top six scorers are back, depending on how the Tips resolve their overager situation. Only one of Everett’s three graduated overagers was a forward, and Ryan Harrison had an injury-plagued 2012-13 season. Graduated defenseman Landon Oslanski was a big weapon on the blue line, but his production is expected to be absorbed by Matt Pufahl, who was acquired in an offseason trade.
  • Many of Everett’s top skill players last season were rookies. The likes of Tyler Sandhu, Ty Mappin, Dawson Leedahl and Carson Stadnyk were just getting their feet wet, and Sandhu was the only one who made a significant offensive contribution. Collectively that group should see a major boost in offensive output.
  • Everett potentially had a big offseason in player acquisition and the Tips might have hit the jackpot. Everett could add as many as four impact forwards: Jujhar Khaira, Linden Penner, Waltteri Hopponen and Ivan Nikolishin. Whether those players end up in Everett was still up in the air when The Herald went to press. Khaira was still a candidate to play in the NHL, while Hopponen and Nikolishin were part of a glut of European players. But whoever among those four plays for the Tips should help the offense.

All signs point toward Everett scoring more goals than it has in the past, and that should go a long way toward pulling the Tips up to sixth or better.

3. Sustain excellence

It may have been another eighth-place finish for Everett last season, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t positives that emerged:

  • Austin Lotz was thrust into the No. 1 goaltending position as a 17-year-old. He struggled to adjust early and suffered through a first half characterized by ups and downs. But in the second half things clicked and Lotz became Everett’s most important player, oftentimes single-handedly keeping the Tips in games when they were being severely outshot. In the first round of the playoffs Everett managed to nick two games off the eventual league champion Portland Winterhawks, with Lotz saving 55 of 58 in the first win and 43 of 45 in the second. The Tips need more of the same from Lotz.
  • The Tips knew Swiss defenseman Mirco Mueller was a good player when they selected him in the first round of the 2012 Canadian Hockey League import draft. They didn’t know Mueller would be thrust into the No. 1 defenseman position, but he was after Ryan Murray suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in November. Then, they didn’t know Mueller would take to being the team’s top defensman so well as a 17-year-old, playing huge minutes against opponents’ top lines. His performances led to Mueller being selected in the first round of this year’s NHL draft by the San Jose Sharks, and Everett will need more stellar performances from Mueller this season.
  • Joshua Winquist became a legitimate No. 1 offensive option last season. He was the only Everett player to average a point per game, and it’s no coincidence that Everett’s offense dried up completely when Winquist was out injured through most of February — the Tips scored just 11 goals in the eight games he missed.

    Through his first four seasons in Everett, Winquist’s career path has eerily mirrored that of former Silvertips star Shane Harper. As a 20-year-old Harper scored 42 goals and earned a pro contract. Winquist is capable of the same.

If Lotz, Mueller and Winquist continue thrive and make even more progress, it will give Everett the top-end core needed to climb the standings — and help the franchise follow through on its guarantee.

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